McAdams v. McAdams

Decision Date13 April 1995
Docket NumberNo. 940204,940204
Citation530 N.W.2d 647
PartiesKeith F. McADAMS, Plaintiff and Appellee, v. Carmela McADAMS, Defendant and Appellant. Civ.
CourtNorth Dakota Supreme Court

Duane Houdek, Legal Assistance of North Dakota, Bismarck, for defendant and appellant.

William D. Schmidt, Peterson, Schmitz, Moench & Schmidt, Bismarck, for plaintiff and appellee.

Appearance by Melvin L. Webster, guardian ad litem.

SANDSTROM, Justice.

Carmen McAdams appeals a divorce judgment and a denial of motion for a new trial arguing the district court clearly erred in splitting custody of the parties' two children. She also contends the district court abused its discretion in denying her motion for a new trial based on an irregularity in the proceedings and insufficient evidence. We reverse the judgment and remand for a new trial.

I

Carmen and Keith McAdams were married on February 28, 1988, in Italy. Carmen McAdams was an Italian citizen and Keith McAdams was in Italy coaching hockey. The couple have two children; Kenneth, born in 1989, and Bryan, born in 1991. Between 1988 and 1992, the McAdams family moved several times because of Keith McAdams' hockey coaching. During those years, the family occasionally lived with Keith McAdams' parents in New York, where he worked at his parents' business.

In September 1992, the McAdams family moved to Bismarck because Keith McAdams became an owner and coach of a Bismarck hockey team. Two weeks after arriving, Carmen McAdams returned to New York with the children without Keith McAdams' knowledge or consent. The Abused Adult Resource Center helped Carmen McAdams secretly move the children back to New York and arranged for them to live in a safe shelter.

Keith McAdams began a divorce action in North Dakota after learning Carmen McAdams had taken the children to New York. While in New York, Carmen McAdams also filed for divorce. The New York trial court dismissed the action holding jurisdiction was in North Dakota. An interim order was issued in North Dakota granting Keith McAdams temporary custody of the children, with Carmen McAdams to receive reasonable visitation.

The district court appointed a guardian ad litem and custody investigator. The custody investigator concluded Carmen McAdams should receive custody of both children. The custody investigator found Keith McAdams suffered from a personality disorder and likely abused Carmen McAdams.

At trial, Carmen McAdams relied mainly upon the custody investigator's report. Keith McAdams introduced evidence he was a good parent. He also introduced evidence of Carmen McAdams' physical abuse of Kenneth and other bad acts by her. Carmen McAdams admitted she let the air out of a moving van's tires when Keith McAdams moved, and the district court found she may have ransacked his apartment after he left.

Shortly before announcing its decision, the district court judge received a telephone call from the custody investigator. The investigator was upset because Keith McAdams had filed a complaint with her licensing board. The investigator asked if a decision would be reached soon. The judge told the custody investigator his decision, and what the likely result of the decision would be. The judge assured the investigator she performed an adequate investigation, and the court would support her against any charges by Keith McAdams.

The district court awarded split custody, giving custody of Kenneth to Keith McAdams and Bryan to Carmen McAdams. The court based its decision on Kenneth's alienation from his mother, which the court specifically found was caused by the father.

Carmen McAdams filed a motion for a new trial based on insufficient evidence and the irregularity of the proceedings. See Rule 59(b)(1), (6), N.D.R.Civ.P. She also requested the judge recuse himself. After denying the motion for new trial, the judge recused himself.

The district court had jurisdiction under Art. VI, Sec. 8, N.D. Const., and N.D.C.C. Sec. 27-05-06(2). This Court has jurisdiction under Art. VI, Sec. 6, N.D. Const., and N.D.C.C. Secs. 28-27-01 and 28-27-02(4). The appeal is timely under Rule 4(a), N.D.R.App.P.

II

Carmen McAdams argues the district court clearly erred by awarding custody of Kenneth to his father and custody of Bryan to her. She also argues the district court abused its discretion by denying her motion for a new trial based on an irregularity in the proceedings and insufficient evidence.

The district court's findings of fact regarding custody will not be disturbed unless clearly erroneous. Leppert v. Leppert, 519 N.W.2d 287, 290 (N.D.1994). A finding of fact is clearly erroneous if this Court is left with a definite and firm conviction a mistake has been made, or if the finding was induced by an erroneous view of the law. Leppert. Questions of law are fully reviewable. Simons v. Gisvold, 519 N.W.2d 585, 587 (N.D.1994).

We review a denial of a motion for a new trial under the abuse of discretion standard. McAdoo v. McAdoo, 492 N.W.2d 66, 69 (N.D.1992). The district court abuses its discretion by unreasonably, arbitrarily, or unconscionably denying a motion. McAdoo. An irregularity in the proceedings to justify a new trial must be one which is patent, obvious, or evident from the record. Cendak Agri-Service, Inc. v. Hausman, 275 N.W.2d 326, 329 (N.D.1979).

A

Carmen McAdams argues the district court disregarded the custody investigator's report and failed to properly consider the statutory best interest factors for child custody found in N.D.C.C. Sec. 14-09-06.2.

The district court cannot arbitrarily disregard expert testimony. Brandt v. Brandt, 523 N.W.2d 264, 266 (N.D.1994). The court may, however, assign the weight to be given the expert's opinion and does not have to accept the opinion as conclusive. Brandt. The court must award custody to the parent who will promote the best interests and welfare of the child. N.D.C.C. Sec. 14-09-06.1.

The sole rationale employed by the district court for splitting custody was the alienation between Kenneth and Carmen McAdams. The district court found "the father has manipulated the older son, Kenneth, to where the alienation between Kenneth and his mother is very strong. The Court finds that this alienation exists because of the father's conduct." The district court then concluded Kenneth should be placed with his father because it would require "major and significant professional help" to reconcile Kenneth's relationship with his mother. The court also concluded Bryan was not yet significantly alienated from his mother, and would become completely alienated if placed with his father. Thus, Bryan should be placed with his mother.

This Court does not look favorably upon split custody. Leppert at 291. In Leppert, we reversed a split custody decision, in part, because the custodial parent was "poisoning the children's minds" against the noncustodial parent. Leppert. This Court has affirmed split custody decisions in cases of uncooperative parents, but for the opposite reason set forth by the district court in this case. Split custody is proper when one parent prevents visitation by the noncustodial parent because the split custody award furthers the child's best interests in maintaining a stable relationship with the noncustodial parent. Gravning v. Gravning, 389 N.W.2d 621, 623 (N.D.1986). A child's best interests are furthered by nurturing the child's relationship with the noncustodial parent. Johnson v. Schlotman, 502 N.W.2d 831, 834 (N.D.1993). The district court's decision effectively terminates Kenneth's relationship with his mother. By awarding custody of Kenneth to his father, the parent who has poisoned Kenneth's mind and will likely continue to do so, Kenneth will not develop a healthy relationship with his mother. As we said in Johnson:

"A parent does have a duty to not turn a child away from the other parent by 'poisoning the well.' Notwithstanding the perceived imperfections in the other parent, a custodial parent should, in the best interests of the children, nurture the children's relationship with the noncustodial parent."

We hold a parent who willfully alienates a child from the other parent may not be awarded custody based on that alienation.

The district court's split custody award is clearly erroneous. The district court failed to properly...

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24 cases
  • Marsden F v. Jason Koop, 20090285.
    • United States
    • North Dakota Supreme Court
    • 19 Octubre 2010
    ...citations omitted). The district court cannot arbitrarily disregard the custody investigator's report and testimony. McAdams v. McAdams, 530 N.W.2d 647, 650 (N.D.1995). [¶ 9] An initial custody determination requires that the district court award primary residential responsibility of childr......
  • Heinle v. Heinle
    • United States
    • North Dakota Supreme Court
    • 17 Febrero 2010
    ...See Schneider v. Livingston, 543 N.W.2d 228, 233 (N.D.1996) (involving a guardian ad litem's recommendation) (citing McAdams v. McAdams, 530 N.W.2d 647, 650 (N.D.1995)). ¶ 8 Here, the district court found factors (a), (b), (c), (f), (g), (j), and (m) favored Angie Heinle. The district court......
  • Stoppler v. Stoppler
    • United States
    • North Dakota Supreme Court
    • 29 Agosto 2001
    ...quoting Reimche v. Reimche, 1997 ND 138, ¶ 12, 566 N.W.2d 790. "While split custody of siblings is generally disfavored, McAdams v. McAdams, 530 N.W.2d 647 (N.D.1995), we have affirmed it in some cases of half-siblings." Ryan v. Flemming, 533 N.W.2d 920, 924 (N.D. 1995). "It is especially a......
  • Martiré v. Martiré
    • United States
    • North Dakota Supreme Court
    • 23 Octubre 2012
    ...“a parent who willfully alienates a child from the other parent may not be awarded custody based on that alienation.” McAdams v. McAdams, 530 N.W.2d 647, 650 (N.D.1995) (emphasis added); see also Wolt, 2010 ND 26, ¶ 10, 778 N.W.2d 786;Brown v. Brown, 1999 ND 199, ¶ 21, 600 N.W.2d 869;Loll v......
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